A Look Inside My Mind

1. Introduction

I am the player who plays Andrew the Bard in Alliance. In real life, I am a computer programmer specializing in mathematical algorithm development. I have a BS in mathematics and computer science and an MS in computer science. I also have high-functioning Asperger’s Syndrome, which makes complex social situations like the ones encountered in LARP often very difficult for me.

I have described myself as similar to a min-maxed Dungeons and Dragons character: extremely good at some things (like math, logical reasoning, and understanding rules systems), very poor at other things (like understanding other peoples’ motivations), and a large part of my life has been spent trying to find environments and activities that allow me to do the things that I’m good at while minimizing the things that I’m not so good at.

Alliance is a game full of intense action, exciting battles, surprisingly deep strategy, and tough decisions, that make all of the effort worth it. I want to continue participating positively in the game, and don’t want to be perceived as a bad sport or ruining anyone else’s fun. Thus I hope that this post will help point the way toward a mutual understanding. There are a few points I want to make.

I know that I can often ask lots of very detailed and unusual questions and behave in ways that seem very weird to those who do not know me will. Thus I have written this post to try to explain things from my perspective so we will be better equipped to understand each other and deal with problems as they come up. It is important to realize that although a lot of this post may seem very negative — pointing out all sorts of possible problems — it is not my intention at all to criticize anyone with this post. I have been facing these types of issues my entire life, in both LARPs as well as other situations. The players and staff at Alliance LARP have been remarkably patient and dedicated to answering my questions and helping me thrive. Most of the “bad situations” that I discuss in this post are things that have happened in other games, not Alliance, and I mention them so that we can avoid a repeat of these problems here.

2. Rules for computers vs. rules for humans

My experience in math and computer programming has given me several particular habits of mind that don’t always translate well to the LARP world. Some examples are as follows:

2.1. How do you know if you’re right?

In computer programming, there are lots of very subtle ways that things can go wrong — almost every program has bugs in it. A key fact, particularly for the type of programming that I do, is that it is possible for a program to give completely the wrong answer and for you to have no idea that the answer is wrong. A bug that causes your program to crash as soon as you run it can be very easy to detect and fix; a bug where the program runs fine but the answer is wrong can be much more damaging because you can be acting on the wrong answer for a long time without knowing it. Thus, questions like “How can I test my program so that if it was giving a wrong answer, I would know it” are very often in the forefront of my mind.

The application of this to LARP is as follows. Consider, say, properly taking hits in melee combat in Alliance. My mental model of this is that I have an internal “mental program” that takes the input of what I perceive and outputs whether it is a valid hit or not. Now, the question I ask myself is, how can I test this “program”? After the fact, how do I know if I got the answer correct or not? And if there’s no way to tell if I did it right or not, how am I supposed to improve?

I think that this also is related to why I tend to be unsure, and constantly worried about whether I did the wrong thing. To me, it’s not enough to get the right answer, you also have to have the understanding to be confident in your answer. If I were to publish a math paper that had a proof of a theorem in it, and my proof had an error in it, I would still consider the paper to be flawed even if the theorem turned out to be true. If I released a piece of software without testing it, I would consider it to be incomplete work even if I got lucky and it turned out there were no serious bugs. So I think there are times when I get frustrated unnecessarily even when I am doing the right thing, just because I don’t have the way to gain the kind of in-depth understanding of the situation to verify to myself that what I did actually is the right thing.

One way that other players can help me in this regard is the following. First, it may be possible to review specific situations after-the-fact to discuss whether I did the right thing and if not, what I should have done instead. Sometimes if I ask general questions not tied to a specific situation, the only reasonable response is “It depends on the situation.” But if we actually have specific situations on the table then it might be possible to go into what parts of the situation I should focus on. Another thing that may be helpful, particularly in the case of combat related issues, is to actually have practice combats with just one or two other people and have someone watch to tell me if I am doing things correctly. Fighter practices would be a good time to do these except that I do live in Fort Collins and don’t have a car, so it is very difficult for me to get all the way down there. But this is something it is probably worth coordinating, if there’s anyone else that wants to go down, since this could be very helpful. It might also be possible for me to try to arrive at events very early so we can do some of this before the game starts.

2.2. Is there a “right” way?

You will noticed in the above I talked a lot about whether what I am doing is “right” or “wrong”. This is also sort of a holdover from math where a question has a “right” or “wrong” answer. So, going back to the question of taking hits, here is my mental model of the situation. With each swing, it either “actually was” a valid hit or “actually wasn’t”, and my objective as a player is to determine which of these is the case so that I can take or not take the hit as required. Thus, one can have a “false positive” where one takes a hit that actually wasn’t a valid hit, or a “false negative” where one fails to take a hit that actually was a valid hit. Thus, there are two questions here:

How do you improve your ability to distinguish between valid and non-valid hits, thus reducing both the chances of false positives and false negatives?
Once you’ve done that, there is still a trade-off between false positive rate and false negative rate. If you only take a hit if you are sure it was valid, you reduce the rate of false positives but increase the rate of false negatives. If you take everything that even nicks you, you reduce the rate of false negatives, but increase the rate of false positives.

(In statistics, these concepts can be expressed by a “receiver operating characteristic curve”, or “ROC curve”, which plots how false positive and false negative rates change as the sensitivity of a test is varied.) The concept is similar to a medical researcher developing a test for a disease: the test can be positive even if you don’t have the disease (false positive) or negative even if you do have the disease (false negative).

One could respond to this idea by stating that in Alliance, there is no such thing as whether a hit “really was” valid or not independent of the individual’s judgment, and thus concepts like a “false positive” and “false negative” do not apply. However, to me, this does not provide much guidance because it does not help me determine whether I did the right thing. If I want to get better at classifying hits as valid or invalid, I need some way of knowing if I’m on the right track. Maybe one can’t do this by comparing your results to a “correct answer,” but if not, there must be some other metric by which one can say that one “valid/invalid hit classification method” is better than another one. (The only alternative that I can see is to say that all “hit classification methods” are equally good, which is clearly false: for instance, if someone used the trivial “hit classification method” of saying that all hits are invalid and thus never taking any hit, he would be cheating.)

2.3. Constructing test cases

Another technique that is often used in math and programming is to find or construct specific test cases that have desired properties. For instance, if testing an algorithm to solve a particular kind of problem, I might start with a very simple instance of the problem that I can figure out the correct solution by hand, and see if the algorithm gives me the correct solution. This is why, when I ask these questions, I often focus on particular scenarios. For instance, a lot of my examples have to do with rules that require players to estimate time, like the “60 count” on death counts or armor refits. The reason for this is that time estimation is one of the few things in LARP that is often done in a subjective way despite the existence of a clear objective standard (i.e. using a watch). Thus it is a good test case for certain questions because it sidesteps the issue of knowing what the right thing to do is in the first place. It’s not that I think that people counting too fast or slow is a particularly big “problem” compared to other aspects of the game, it’s just that it’s an easy example to use to isolate particular questions.

2.4. Structure versus content

When solving problems or trying to understand a situation, we all try to look at similar situations we are familiar with. The place where I seem to differ from most people is that my identification of “similarity” is focused on the structure of a problem, rather than its content. An example is above, where I talked about taking hits as similar to medical testing with “false positives” and “false negatives” — while LARP combat and medical testing are two entirely unrelated areas of endeavor, they still share the same structure of “there’s some aspect of the world that can be described in a binary way, and you can observe it only imperfectly.”

Here is another example. Several years ago at the Origins gaming convention I saw game designer Richard Launius giving a demo of his game Defenders of the Realm, a fantasy-themed game where you go around a board fighting off enemy minions while trying to gather power to destroy the big evil monsters. I commented on how many of the mechanics for how minions are placed in Defenders are extremely similar to how disease cubes are placed in the game Pandemic (e.g. there are four different colors of monsters/disease cubes, each space on the board is colored one of those colors, each turn you draw one or more cards and put a monster/disease cube on that space, and if there’s already three of the same color on the space you instead put one on each space adjacent to that space, etc.). Launius said that the game wasn’t anything like Pandemic, and he didn’t like Pandemic because he didn’t like “games with cubes.” When I asked what he meant by “cubes” he said that this referred to the small wooden cubes that are used as tokens in many games, like Pandemic (Defenders uses actual plastic monster figures for the tokens). It had not even occurred to me to categorize games by whether they use a cube or a sculpted figure for a token — I would have considered that a cosmetic detail. Here you can see the difference between “structure” and “content” based thinking. Launius was thinking about the content of the game (disease prevalence represented by abstract cubes vs. monsters represented by monster figures) and observing correctly that they are very different. I was thinking about the structure of the game (there’s these tokens representing bad stuff that get put on the board, and you have to move around to get rid of them) and was focusing on the structure of how the tokens are put on the board and taken off.

An example of an application to Alliance is as follows. It is my understanding that the rules for spell levels and pyramids are considered to be part of the “IG reality” of how magic works — i.e. I can say IG that “this is a 6th circle spell” or “I have 3 7th circle spell slots” — I even saw an IG document in the Mages’ Guild describing how spell slots represent energy stored in your mind. However for armor/body/damage rules we had a whole discussion about how this is OOG information — i.e. I can’t say “I have 12 body points” IG. From a perspective of “content” this makes sense — magic doesn’t exist in the real world, so you can make up just about anything, but swords hitting people and causing damage does exist in the real world, so it should follow “real world” rules. However from a “structure” perspective this makes no sense — both spell levels and armor/body/damage are mathematical systems that aren’t based on anything in the real world, but are designed to create game balance. To me, accepting the idea that the armor/body/damage system is “just the way things work in Fortannis” even if it’s not how it works on Earth is no harder than accepting that magic works in Fortannis even though it doesn’t on Earth.

3. Things that are difficult for me

Here are some aspects of LARP that tend to be difficult for me.

3.1. Rules that appear to give a player a benefit for being sloppy with those rules

Consider again the rule about counting 60 seconds for armor refits. Some players may choose to use a watch to time the counts while other players may choose to just count in their head. I choose to use a watch so that I know that I am counting the full 60 seconds. But consider the following cases. If I used a watch, but decided to count out only 45 seconds and then say “Refit complete”, then that would be blatantly cheating. But if I choose not to use a watch, and count to 60 but it only actually takes 45 seconds because I’m counting fast, I’m unlikely to face any consequences. (Even a player I know who spends a lot of time and personal effort improving the game for others has said that she wouldn’t report someone to a Marshal for shorting armor refit counts because she thinks that reporting is too much effort. And in a different LARP, I did call a player out for shorting counts, and he replied essentially that “I know I don’t always count accurately, but I don’t own a working watch and can’t afford to buy one, and I don’t have OOG time to train myself to count more accurately, so I’ll just keep doing what I am doing” and this seemed to be considered acceptable.) So the part of this that feels unfair to me is that, by trying to put in the extra effort to wear and use a watch, I feel like I’m being penalized.

I recognize that almost all rules in the game are like this in some way — the game is based on honor, of course there are lots of ways to gain an advantage by doing things wrong, we just have to trust people.
But one thing that would be helpful for me is to find ways that noticing someone else gain an “unfair advantage” that way can be turned into a positive IG or OOG experience for me, rather than a source of conflict.

For instance, one issue that can be frustrating sometimes is when someone does not take my spell, and (according to the most recent thread) I am not permitted to call a “Hold” to clarify what happened. This forces me to either accept the waste of the spell or stay there for a few seconds to explain to the player what the spell did, during which time I am potentially vulnerable to attack by another enemy. The way that I’ve decided to deal with this is to treat it as an IG magical phenomenon so that when this happens, it is now a cool thing that my character observes (wow, I got to see this interesting anomaly up close! I want to learn more about it!) rather than a waste of a spell. I think there might be ways to extend this concept into other areas. I think we should always strive to do things the right way, but to the extent that it’s not possible to do it all the time, we can turn what could be a negative into something positive.

For armor refit counts I could do something similar — maybe be a “blacksmithing talent scout” who goes around timing people’s refits in order to “identify promising blacksmiths.” This not only gives the chapter staff data on how long refits are actually taking, but also turns what could be a bad feeling of unfairness into a hook for a potentially cool RP experience (“You just learned blacksmithing last month, yet you repair armor nearly as fast as a Master Blacksmith! Where did you learn to do that?)

3.2. Rules that attempt to regulate what you are thinking

Another category of rules that are difficult for me is rules where whether something is okay depends on what you are thinking when you do it. For instance, in the thread I started about metagaming — if I stay in the tavern after finishing my breakfast because I’m tired, it’s okay. If I do the same thing because I see a bunch of NPCs getting ready, then it’s metagaming, even though the externally observable behavior is exactly the same. Same thing with leaving a webbed enemy because you just don’t feel like killing them vs. leaving a webbed enemy because you want to prevent the NPC from repopping. The reason these rules are difficult for me are as follows:

  • I see the LARP rules system in general as a way to regulate how players interact. What goes on in my head is my business, and what goes on in your head is your business, it’s only when what I do has an impact on the external world, or an impact on you, that the rules are needed. These types of rules break this metaphor and feel like it is interfering with my “freedom of thought”.
  • It makes it impossible to learn where the acceptable boundaries are by observing others, since there’s no way to observe what someone else is thinking.
  • Rules that say “you’re not allowed to use piece of information X, because your character doesn’t know that IG” are difficult because it is conceivable that my character could figure out piece of information X from information that they can observe IG. For instance, if I see an NPC come into town and ask if they have work — is that “metagaming” because the concept of an NPC is an OOG concept, or is it acceptable because my character has observed that strangers who come into town during ducal gatherings often have work available? So it creates a situation where you have to determine “what you would have thought” had you not known a specific piece of information.
  • It creates a situation in which I have to pit my mind against itself: there’s one part of my mind that’s processing the “forbidden” information or thinking in the “forbidden” way, and another part of my mind that’s trying to undo what the first part is doing.

Game effects that cause you to “switch sides” or otherwise act against your own interests (Charm, Berserk, Dominate, etc.) are even more difficult in this respect. If I get dominated by a bad guy and told to fight against the rest of the PCs, I have to balance just the right level of aggressiveness vs. defensiveness so that I’m doing the bad guy’s bidding without letting my OOG desire to get taken down quickly (so the rest of the PCs can fix me) have any effect. And even if I’m able to successfully suppress that tendency, the extra mental processing overhead of doing so already reduces my capability compared to what it is during normal fighting, so I still don’t feel like I’m “fighting to the best of my ability.” Fortunately this has not been an issue so far (I was only affected by such an effect once in my Alliance career, being turned into an undead during the Baron Pike fight, and I have no weapon skill so was just told to stand there)

4. Things that are helpful for me

The following are things that will help me understand the rules and do things better.

4.1. Be direct

If I am doing something wrong, the first thing you should do is tell me directly as soon as convenient. I actually like being told when I am doing something wrong because that means that I know how to improve. I usually will not get subtle social cues, but I also won’t get upset if you just tell me directly that I need to stop doing something. It is usually best to talk to me about after anything immediately pressing is resolved (e.g. if it’s in the middle of a battle, wait until after the battle, so we can talk about it without being rushed by what’s happening in the battle) but as soon as possible after that (when it is fresh in my mind).

A useful thing that might help here is to establish some sort of IG code-phrase that means, OOG, “Remember what just happened because I’m going to want to talk about it later.” This way I know to remember what happened so that we can discuss it at a more opportune time. This could apply the other way around if I see someone else do something that I might want to talk to them about.

4.2. Tell me what I’m doing right, as well as what I’m doing wrong

One thing that can sometimes be difficult for me is telling if I am told that I did something wrong (like not taking a hit that I should have taken) whether (a) I actually did the right thing and the person telling me otherwise is the one that perceived things incorrectly, (b) I did do the wrong thing, but my overall “mental program” is okay and this was just an isolated incident within the “normal” margin of error, or (c) There is a significant problem and I need to change my behavior. So being told what I am doing particularly well is helpful because it means that I don’t need to worry about that stuff and can focus on other, more serious problems.

4.3. Listen to (or read) all of my question before answering

Oftentimes when I ask rules questions, they have a long setup because I need to set up a situation to clarify exactly what my question is. One thing that I sometimes observe is when answering questions, people will assume they know what the question is before I finish saying it, and answer a different question from the one asked. Often it will seem like the question I am asking pertains to some minor point that is unlikely to come up in a real game, but the reason I’m asking is not because I’m concerned about the minor point but because that point serves as an example of a broader question. This is why I have started to prefer written media, like the forums, to verbal media because it is easier to lay out a full point there.

4.4. Begin willing to admit when a mistake is made

If it turns out that a mistake in rules interpretation is made, either by me or the other person, the best thing to do is to admit that there was a mistake and try to understand what the correct rule is so it can be done correctly next time. Trying to justify the mistake after-the-fact just makes it harder to correct. Jesse has done a very good job at this; even though he has been playing the game for over 20 years, he has been willing to admit in at least a couple instances that he read a rule wrong when I have pointed it out to him in the rule book. This has given me a lot of respect for Jesse, and means that when he does make a ruling that is contrary to the letter of the rulebook (like the ruling about Acidic Skin and Killing Blow) I know that the ruling is based on what is better for the game and is not an attempt to cover up a mistake.

5. Things that are not helpful

The following are ways of responding that are usually not helpful, and usually make my confusion worse.

5.1. Trying to “simplify” things, or making assumptions based on my level of experience

Sometimes when responding to rules questions, especially if I am new to a game, players will assume that I don’t understand because I am new and will try to give “simplified” explanations. There have been instances (again, in other games) where I have quoted a particular rule to make my point, and the other players didn’t even read the rule I was quoting, they just assumed that I can’t possibly be right because I was new to the game. In fact, I am very good at noticing minor points in rules that others miss: for instance, Jesse wasn’t even aware of the fact that you can do Healing Arts without interrupting your First Aid count until I pointed it out to him. So making unwarranted assumptions can be very frustrating to me. When someone gives a “simplified” explanation, again it usually makes things more confusing because the “simplified” explanation is likely to leave important information out that I need in order to build a robust mental model of the situation.

5.2. Guessing or speculation

If you don’t know what the answer to a question is, giving an answer based on a guess or speculation is likely to make my confusion worse, because if the guess is wrong then I am likely to end up making other inferences based on the wrong information and ask more questions based on those incorrect inferences, which increases the level of confusion. If you don’t know the answer, it is better to direct me to someone who does know the answer than to try to guess.

5.3. “Telephone games”

In my experience, whenever I get caught up in “telephone games” where I am asking one person about a response that another person gave, this almost always leads to confusion and almost never leads to a good answer. This is always why I like to stick to the forums because it is easy to see what everyone else said and in what context. Another thing that is helpful is to have a clear hierarchy, so if multiple people are giving different answers then I know who to listen to. I think that Alliance has done a very good job with this so far with a clear person in charge (Jesse) and staff members with clearly defined roles in certain aspects of the game.

6. Conclusion

The day I was first introduced to LARP was back when I was at the University of Maryland. I was in the student union and I saw the university gaming club meeting, and some people from Amtgard, a nearby LARP, were there. I had vaguely heard of the LARP concept before and was sort of interested, but had never really gotten around to looking into it more. I did a few one on one fights (Amtgard really doesn’t have much of an ongoing storyline; it’s mostly just fights) and it was really cool, so I spent most of the rest of the evening looking through the rulebook and figuring out what kind of character I wanted to play. I went to the group, and pretty soon Amtgard was one of my favorite parts of every week. At first it was just because swinging a sword and so on was really cool, but the novelty of that wears off after a while. But there were plenty of other things to do — I found other ways to contribute to the park, like by running some of the battlegames, especially games for some of the young kids (mostly children of other Amtgard players) who showed up there.

After I moved to Illinois for graduate school, I joined a different LARP, Belegarth, out there. Belegarth really is just combat, and doesn’t have any character classes — in fact, the people who did it didn’t even like to call it a LARP. That was fun for a while, but with just combat to do, it got old pretty quick. Finally, when I moved out to Fort Collins for a job, I looked around for LARPs in this area. I found the Amtgard chapter in Fort Collins and played there.

Let’s just say it’s a good thing I went to the chapter in Maryland first, because if any of the other Amtgard or Belegarth groups I was in was my first experience at LARP, I probably would have been turned off LARP completely. The group in Maryland was really good at helping me work through some of the issues similar to the ones I’ve described. Some of the other groups, not so much. What I’ve learned through my years of LARP is that what matters most to my experience isn’t how the scenario is set up or what rule system is being used, it’s the people. If I’m playing with a group of people who are really willing to sit down with me, either in person or through some other form of communication, and work through issues, then I’ll have a great time, and I’ll be able to give back to the rest of the group. If I have a group that isn’t willing to do that, things won’t be so good.

So far, the players and staff of Alliance have been really willing to help me, and I’ve had a great time so far. LARP has given me the ability to see the world in new ways that I never would have otherwise. It’s given me a chance to actually see how other people think, and realize that not everyone puts things in the same type of logical framework that I do. I always knew that I think differently from most people, but I didn’t realize how much differently until I started trying to work through these kinds of issues in real world situations. It’s given me the chance to take scenarios that you see every day in the news — how to deal with potential threats, the relationship between police and citizens — and put me in the position of someone making these decisions, even if only in a fictional world. It’s inspired me to see hiking through the wilderness as a fun experience, a source of adventure even if you don’t happen to find any treasure. I hope that I can continue having these fun experiences, and tell others about them so others can share in the joy.

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